Since writing an article for an earlier edition of The Athenry Journal, I was asked to write more regularly. I am happy to do this. It gives me a feeling of still being connected to Ireland, even though I have been living abroad for eleven years. As I settle in to my new job teaching theology in Kenya, I realise that my years of continuous absence from Ireland are likely to continue.

There were a couple of events that occurred this June that reminded me of how long I have been away from home. Both Ireland and Canada held national elections within days of each other. I had only a limited feel for the issues at stake in Ireland. However, I knew quite a lot about the inside story in Canada. Having just finished four years of studies in that country, I felt much affection for it and felt also that I had a reasonable sense of its political culture and current issues.

Something that occurs to me at the moment is to compare Canadian Christianity with that of Ireland. To be more specific, to compare the affairs of the Catholic Church in the Province of Quebec with what I know of the situation in the Irish Republic. There are many parallels between the two places. Possible implications for the future in Ireland can be chastening.

Quebec’s Quiet Revolution

The population of Quebec represents a unique phenomenon on the American continent. They speak French, of course there are enclaves of English speakers. Nevertheless, the majority of the people in this immense territory are descendants of French settlers who arrived during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They comprise about a quarter of the whole population of Canada. When I was living in Canada I was based in Toronto, Ontario. However, I spent a certain amount of my time in Canada visiting Quebec and trying to communicate in my faltering French. I found Quebecers to be a charming people – earthy, with a great sense of extended family, and great singers-and-celebrators. Actually, there are many Irish names amongst Quebecers. Quebec was the landing point for the majority of the coffin ships that sailed to North America during the famine.

After World War 11, like so many other countries (though not Ireland) the Canadian economy experienced the “post-war boom”. Quebec soldiers returning from Europe experienced what the song expresses: “”How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm – After they’ve seen Paree“? In addition to this, increased educational opportunities and access to mass media changed the attitudes of many rural Quebecers. Now lay people wanted more of a say in the running of their province. Many also wanted to move to the cities, to make money and to gain entrance into the professions.

A great desire emerged amongst Quebecers to modernise. Inevitably this involved rejecting many aspects of their old ways. Unfortunately, a focus for much of what was to be rejected was the Catholic Church. A phenomenon then happened that left sociologists stunned, within a very few years the majority of the population stopped practising its faith. By about 1970, attendance at Mass had dropped from the 90% range to below 10%. Experts called this “The Quiet Revolution”.

Similarities to Ireland

At first glance, there seems to be some disturbing similarities between Quebec in the 1960s and Ireland today. There also seems to be similarities in the longer pattern of our histories. Like Quebec, Ireland experienced a keen sense of being oppressed. This oppression was not only economic but also cultural. As in Quebec, the Catholic Church became the bastion of the cultural identity of the local population. After independence, the Catholic Church in the Republic exercised a remarkable influence. As in Quebec, this influence was keenly felt in such areas as education, health and social services.

Once again, there are similarities in the next act of the story. Ireland’s post-war boom had to await the 1960s. However, once it arrived, major cultural changes began to occur. The two-thirds of the population that “rose with the economic tide” experienced new opportunities and expressed new expectations regarding what life could bring. A pool of unemployed people missed the tide and experienced a kind of exclusion from the main-stream of Irish society that was new.

The 1990s have witnessed a second burst of economic growth and the cultural impact of this looks set to be even greater than that of the 1960s. Irish people have embraced the vision of a European identity. Values of pluralism, freedom of choice and the separation of Church and state seem increasingly attractive.

Now, in some ways, it is understandable that a person who holds fast to these modem values would see the Catholic Church as very old fashioned. It can appear that the Church is the only place where authority is still exercised in a heavy-handed manner that does not allow questioning or criticism. Middle-aged people remember the 1950s and how many other social institutions such as political parties and families had rather “authoritarian” leaders? They can feel that times have changed in other walks of life and it is time for them in the Church to change as well.

Alas, there has been a final act to the story in Ireland. This dimension of the story does not have a parallel in the Quebec of the 1960s. However, the impact of it could encourage a “revolution” against Catholicism in Ireland similar to what happened in Quebec. I refer, first of all, to the Bishop Casey affair. The Irish population has been deeply shocked by the revelations about the former bishop of Galway. The revelations involved not just sexual scandal, but also a financial one. The question of the length of time it took for these issues to become public tells us something about the kind of unquestioned authority exercised by the Church leaders.

Following fast and furiously on this were reports of other sexual scandals involving clergy. At times, the defensive responses of Church leaders seemed to worsen the problem for a certain period. There is no doubt but that in certain areas, rates of attendance at Mass are dropping. Some commentators in the mass media are raising the chorus that was heard in Quebec in the 1960s “to modernise means to reject the Catholic Church.”

So what can we expect in the next century? Will Ireland show the effects of a quiet revolution as severe as Quebec? I hope not.

It’s our Choice

The question remains regarding how we choose to respond, both individually and as a society, to changing times. In fact, we might point out that one fact that seems pretty clear is that in the future being Catholic will require a conscious choice more than has been the case in the past. This can be an opportunity as well as a problem. More and more we will have to choose to be Catholic rather than “drift” into being Catholic because everyone else is. Each of us will soon have to ask “How important is the Eucharist to me?” or “Do I have a relationship with Jesus Christ that gives meaning to my life?” and “If I have the glimmers of such a relationship, am I going to cultivate it? Because unless I do, this glimmer might get extinguished.”

It seems to me that the values of pluralism and individual responsibility that are so valued today are very compatible with this manner of being a member of the Church. Of course, if we want to reenergise our faith like this it will take effort.

Working at our personal relationship with God and taking responsibility in our Church will take more effort than some of the old ways of being Catholic. The choice is ours.

(This article had to be abridged for space reasons.)

Street Children in Nairobi

I receive a copy of the Saturday Irish Times here in Kenya usually about two weeks late. Today I was very moved to read the Holy Saturday issue which proclaimed the news of the peace agreement in Northern Ireland. How moving to anyone raised in the Irish nationalist tradition to read the simple headline on the front page editorial “Easter I998.” The intention of the headline clearly was to proclaim that we have a new date to stitch into our memory of Ireland’s historic moments. And then, inside the paper there was the wonderful article by the poet Seamus Heaney.

If revolution is the kicking down of a rotten door, evolution is more like pushing the stone from the mouth of the tomb. There is an Easter energy about it [the peace agreement] a sense of arrival rather than wreckage (Seamus Heaney, Irish Times, April 11.) How well a poet can capture in a brief space what the rest of us would grope to express in paragraphs. This Easter business – there is really something to it.

This reference of the stone moving from the mouth of the tomb brought a similar and moving image to my mind. This time the stone was a large tractor tyre covered in white sacking material. The tomb was a series of branches and metal wires covered by the same synthetic sacking. This construction was a prop for a drama about the resurrection I was part of on Easter Sunday here in Nairobi. The general area where I found myself was the slum behind the industrial area of the city.

More specifically, I was in a home for street children that has been built by a dynamic Sister of Mercy from Dublin, Sister Mary Killeen. It was my privilege to celebrate the Eucharist with the ninety or so residents of the home. They had spent a week preparing for the drama which took the place of the homily in the Mass. It was only after the celebration that it began to sink into me just how much effort these young people had put into their celebration of the risen Jesus.

After the liturgy the chief house mother and I headed across the compound of jerry-built dormitories to the one low building that housed her flat. After our customary cup of tea, we returned to the now-empty hall where the Mass had been held (a gift of the Nairob Lyons club, the tomb was competing for space on the stage with their massive Logo on the wall). I stared at the tomb and recognised what an ingenious product of creative scavenging it was. The children had scoured the nearby slum and, evidently, the grounds of a big trucking company next door, to find their materials.

I would not care to ask how legal were the means by which they obtained the tyre. How they managed to heave it over the high wire fencing I will never know. The branches and wires had been rounded into a circular structure that exactly matched the five-foot high tyre. These children had made this tomb their own.

I chatted a little with my good friend the chief house mother. She is an iron-willed Edinburgh Baptist who lived in Kenya for decades. She is slight of frame and has the white hair of one in her late 50s. Her face is gaunt and her jaw always looks clenched. However, her brown eyes are large and bear looking into. She is called Mama Kamau (mother of Kamau) after the Kenyan orphan she legally adopted years ago. Mama Kamau reminded me that during the sketch one of the boys had climbed into the tomb and almost knocked it over as he climbed inside the place looking for Jesus. He was portraying St Peter from the scene in John’s Gospel where the two disciples find the tomb empty. “You thought that was somewhat exaggerated acting, l expect” she said in her working-class Scots accent that you could cut with a knife. She was accurate in her surmise. “But you’re wrong,” she said, “They have a way of doing that.

When I am in my office one of them will burst through the door and ask something like ‘is James here?’ looking for one of their friends. Before receiving my answer, they will look under my desk and behind the door as if I was trying to hide the young fellow. “Like most missionaries of decades standing, Mama Kamau often reflects on how different from her own culture of those to whom she has given her life. I stayed a while staring at the empty tomb and something sank in. I thought: these children are definitely catching the Christian “thing.”

Special Children

It was not to be taken for granted that Christianity would touch these children. Obviously, for their years on the street they had nothing of a religious formation. To be sure, before they hit the streets, they had a wide variety of home experiences. Some did indeed have a serious Catholic upbringing for a few years — typically their parents would have died of AIDS and left them to join the thousands of street children that populate Kenya’s capital city. But even for the few that are lucky enough to find their way to a home like this, are almost invariably traumatised by their months or years living rough.

I know so little about these children. But from their inability to look me in the eye much less speak to me I can tell something. Their self esteem can be so low that it occurs to me to speak of their having “no self image.” They just cannot perceive themselves as occupying enough space to be a real person who could answer a question put by this tall white priest who they do not know well. Who can say to what extent these children can come to know and like the Jesus we are telling them about?

The recent upsurge of glue sniffing street children has made walking on certain streets in the city centre a nightmare.

Another aspect of this question is that the religious formation has not always been well looked after in the home. Sr Mary who started the home has spoken to me about this. She feels guilty about it, but her primary energies had for a long time been devoted to fund-raising and managing the practicalities of housing, feeding and schooling these children. I travel quite a bit around similar projects to this in Nairobi and I have seen this situation repeat itself. The scramble to find the material basics for the very poor is so demanding that religiously motivated people often do not find time to offer religious formation to the people they are striving to help. This is where our Jesuit students can come in.

One of my jobs in the Jesuit School of Theology where I teach is to find apostates for our fifty odd students. They come from all over Africa, so as strangers to Nairobi they need help in finding some part-time ministry to undertake alongside their studies. Teaching catechism in such places as this home for street children is just the sort of work ministry that suits our fellows. But what actually gets through? Our Jesuit students are not trained catechises and their schedules do not permit them to all year round regular visitors to the school.

I myself have made only the very limited commitment to this home. I turn up to say Mass once a month. However, it seems that this event has served as a focus for a lot of their leaming. By the way, the minority of Protestants at the school are well looked after by Mama Kamau. They are packed off most Sunday mornings to a nearby Protestant service. They dress to the nines, cross the sewerage-bearing stream that borders the home, and reach their Church promptly. Mind you, for big feasts like Christmas and Easter Mama Kamau has put so much work into preparing the Catholic liturgy that she packs her Protestant children in as well. Preparing for these liturgies helps occupy the time of the children during the school holidays that coincide with these Christian feasts. Having them prepare for the Mass all week keeps them all out of trouble. So it was that in our drama on Easter Sunday, some of our main actors were Protestant.

The improvement of the way the children participate in the Mass has been remarkable. The liturgy is to be said in Swahili. At the best of times, I struggle to say the priest’s part of the Mass in this language. However, for the first few months of my visiting the place I had to recite the responses as well. But never fear, Mama Kamau applied her Protestant ethic. She made photo-copies of the parts of the Mass, placed the sheets in plastic folders and spent hours training the children to read and recite just as they should. Now they bellow out both the prayers and quite a few hymns. Mama Kamau now corrects me where I go wrong in saying the priest’s part of the mass. As a pseudo-Catholic, she is mysteriously “high” in her liturgical preferences.

Actually, Mama Kamau, does not approve of drama during the Mass. She feels it is disrespectful. I have conceded to her preferences and instead of having drama every time I visit I now only press for it on very special feast days like Christmas and Easter. At times I snigger at Mama Kamau’s high Catholicism but I have also learnt to be slow to judge some one of her immense experience working with Kenyan children. She reminds me that these children have had virtually no structure in their lives. As I have already said, they can also tend to have self-images that are lower than the floor. So, to co-operate with each other and to successfully pull off a Catholic liturgy is a great achievement, a great security, for them. And after all, they do have some experience of Mass “on the outside.” They very much want to know how to behave like “normal people.” I have now learnt to recognise for myself how the structured approach is helping the children. You can see a joy in their eyes when they have “got it right” down to the last hymn and the last Amen.

It’s getting through!

I suppose I could have recognised that the children were making their own the message about Jesus that we have been offering them. However, somehow it was staring at that perfectly designed tomb that let the truth settle in that this has been happening. As I marvelled at the tractor tyre, I remembered Omondi the fellow who had read the first reading during the Mass. Omondi is a taciturn thirteen-year-old who I baptised at Christmas along with two other young men. He has few friends and no one knows much about his history before he arrived at the home (in such cases you can always assume the worst). A month before Christmas, I had taken the boys into Mama Kamau’s sitting room for a kind of ritual announcement that I would Baptise them. Mama Kamau later joked with me that Omondi took the meeting so seriously that he gave up sniffing glue for the whole month leading up to his big event, it is impossible to stop drugs getting into the home. The children that want to use them will find an opportunity.

However, in a sense, the joke is now on us. Omondi has stayed off drugs for four more months now and seems to be slowly opening up to friends and house parents. They say they find him saying his prayers for a few minutes each morning.

In the theology course that I teach at the Jesuit college I declare with great confidence that the story of Jesus meets a kind of yearning expectation in the heart of each individual. However, for some reason I lose my confidence in this truth when I visit this home for street-children. This is where the proof of the pudding is. These children are hearing about Jesus for more or less the first time. For them is it anything more than a fairy-tale? These little ones have already been so thoroughly crucified. Who am I to preach the resurrection to them?

In the end, however, it has been them who preach the resurrection to me.

Easter 1998. In both Ireland and Kenya, Christ has not only continued to be crucified, but he also rises.

I know the people of Athenry are well used to returned ‘Yanks’. Everyone seems to have a cousin of some description who makes his or her way back to visit the ancestral seat. I know also the patient smirk that is evoked by great claims to how Irish these visitors are. Well, I am something of a returned Dubliner. Actually, I was born in the States, but my parents brought me back when I was a baby.

My real foreignness to Athenry comes from being brought up in suburban South Dublin. Now, this is where the plot thickens: I was brought up by a Limerick mother and an Athenry father. We four children were always given the feeling that “the real people lived in the country.” I believed this idea then, and I still have a lot of time for it now.

Visits to Athenry: My Limerick grandparents died when I was quite young; so it was to Athenry that I made most of my visits to see relatives. Granny Whelan, God rest her, promised she would make it to my ordination in 1992, but fell short by a year. Some of my happiest memories are of my visits to Athenry, as I grew up. Grandad ran the bar in The Square. A more fascinating place, for a ten-year-old from Dublin suburbia, you cannot imagine – smells of beer, the metallic sound of rolling drums, sawdust on the floor for sliding on, and the challenge of climbing up onto one of those wooden beer stools – all this fascinated me.

However, Grandad’s main characteristic was that he used to leave a three-day growth of beard on him when we came to visit. Within minutes of arriving, he would take me on his lap in the big chair beside the fire in the back room. From this position he would both tickle me with his hands and rub his beard all over my face. I would go hysterical with laughter.

Granny also was marvellous to visit. Granny ran the shoe shop beside the bar. Indeed, when we visited, she seemed to organise all of us while she was at it. She had preternaturally black hair. She had a square face with dark, Hispanic eyes that always knew what you had just been up to. Funnily enough, some of my fondest memories are of getting into trouble with her.

There was the time I walked out at night and visited the train-station. I climbed up to the signal office and chatted with the kind man there. His kindness went so far as to show me what all the levers in the office were for and then to phone Granny, as soon as I had departed. He told her that her grandson was roaming the streets at night. What a welcoming reception I received when I rambled back to The Square!

A Fair Day: And then there was the Fair Day. If there was one thing more fascinating than Grandad’s bar, it was the transformation Athenry went through on a Fair Day. It was kind of scary, too—for a Dublin ten-year-old. You couldn’t open the front door between the shop and the bar without running the risk of a frightened cow or calf trampling over you. Or, at the very least, you ran every risk of standing smack in the middle of some of their droppings. Then there was the chaos of noise. The moo’s of the cattle were matched by the high-pitched chatter coming from the Bar. Then there were various shouts from people thronging the Square.

The hawkers were my favourites. I wished I had heaps of money to buy things from each of the stalls that lined the street. I would have no use for most of what they sold – Wellington boots, women’s clothing, glass ornaments for a house. Still, there was a sort of fever that got into you on a fair day. Buying like mad seemed to be part of the excitement. This was where my trouble with Granny began. One day, she discovered that I had spent my savings on buying a penknife the day before. A beautiful penknife, it was second hand, with a ribbed-ivory finish. To my mortification, Granny dragged me out of the house to point out the hawker who had sold it to me. It was bad enough me being in trouble, but you should have heard the earful she gave to the hawker! In a flash, he took the knife back and returned my money. By the look of him, he would have returned twice the amount if she had told him to.

A Wisdom Figure: Granny lived long enough to see me through adolescence and adulthood. My image of her, as the years passed, was of her sitting in her room over the boot shop. Instead of running everything, she was now being looked after by my aunty Marie and her husband Leo Gardiner. My aunty Carmel lived just across the road and was married to Sean Torpey. The room always seemed dark and shrouded in cigarette smoke. Prominent on the wall, was a picture of the Sacred Heart with a flickering red light under it. Jesus seemed to have the same kind of yellow smoker’s-skin that Granny had.

The other item, always near Granny, was her dog-eared prayer book. It seemed to have more inserts than pages—pictures of saints and memorial cards of the dead.

You could talk with Granny about anything. It was always a good starting point to know you were the apple of her eye. In retrospect, I realise that Granny was a woman of , exceptional intelligence and judgement. And I needed a listening ear.

As a teenager, I was having trouble with ‘the Dublin thing’. I felt unsettled – uncertain about what I wanted to do with my life. So, coming down to the “real people” in Athenry was very important. I told Granny of my thoughts of priesthood almost before anybody. She was a safe distance from Dublin, of course. These thoughts of mine were a bit like the conversation of a couple who talk privately about the possibility of getting married long before any engagement is made, either formally or informally. They would not dream of telling most people what they were talking about.

Well, Granny was party to my speculations about priesthood. I did a pretty good job of covering up the fact that I had these thoughts during most of my four years at Trinity College. However, in the final year of my degree, I announced I was joining the Jesuits. L believe that Granny was one of the few people who were not surprised.

On reflection, I think that priesthood was my way of becoming a “real person.” To this day, I have a sense of awe about how far the faith goes back among my Galway ancestors. When studying in Boston recently, I visited the mass-grave of members of a famine coffin-ship that was wrecked within sight of land. It had come from Galway port and I reflected that some of the dead would have known my great-grandparents. I feel connected to that tradition in a special way by my vocation.

I really believe that these generations of ancestors are in Heaven and that they are delighted with me. What times they saw, those people. I just know their faith was as strong as Granny’s.

Athenry and Africa: In the last couple of weeks, I have started a job that I can foresee staying with for a very long time. I have just finished graduate studies in Canada and am settling in as a theology professor in a Jesuit seminary in Kenya. Young Jesuits come to study here from most of the countries of Africa. I spent three years of my own training here before ordination and another two in Zambia. I am supposed to be the last generation of European missionaries in Africa. Vocations are booming here, but this produces huge needs for “formation personnel”. Missionaries are still much needed for this work. Still, there are drawbacks to having us white-folk as teachers. Since Vatican 2, the emphasis in theology is on expressing Christianity in African culture. I have to somehow give these students the tools to create an African theology, without pretending to be African myself.

One of the methods I hope to employ, is to discuss how deeply Christianity embedded itself in Irish Culture. I hope they can recognise the relevance for themselves of studying how our faith was translated from a Greco-Roman culture into the foreign one of the Celts. The tragedy about African Christianity is that evangelisation took place in a context of European colonisation. Because Africans -were never allowed the luxury that the Celts had they received the impression that there was little of their culture that was acceptable in Christianity.

I have just read the December 1996 issue of the Athenry Journal. Believe it or not, I am to use it in class. Do you remember the article about the “Number of Cooking Places in the Athenry Area”? I am particularly interested about the one near Lady Well. I understand that Lady Well was a place of religious devotion before Christianity. Well, Africans know all about holy wells from their traditional religions, but usually instead of the symbolism of such wells from their traditional religions, being brought forward into Christianity, the people were forbidden to consider them as holy. I have a Jesuit friend, who has a childhood memory of his family being publicly reprimanded in Church for engaging in a ceremony much like the kind of devotion some Celtic pagans would have performed in visiting a holy well.

What I hope will fascinate my students will be the way in which wells like Lady Well were dedicated to Our Lady and became a place of Christian pilgrimage. Then there is the “Carnaun Cross”. Do you remember the article about the penal cross in the December issue? I just loved the story about the cock popping out of the pot to give witness to the resurrection! I can show slides of wooden artefacts that are strikingly similar from African traditional religion. They are full of symbolic images that serve as a base for religious instruction. But where are the Christian versions of these works of art? I tell you no lie when I state that the great bulk of statues and crucifixes in Catholic Africa have been import from Italy.

Ireland’s next Challenge: I have been rambling on, but I have one final reflection. Really, it is prayer. Ireland is going through what seems like a major cultural transformation. I pray to God that the Irish will find a way of carrying their Christianity with them into the new times. What does Christ of the European Community look like? Christ of the Internet? Christ of a confident people, highly educated and working in high-tech industry? Christ of the chronically unemployed black-spots that seem to flounder in the rising tide? Christ of a reconciled Northern Ireland? Irish people once achieved a monumental translation of Roman Christianity into its own culture. I pray that they may achieve the next translation of Christianity into the culture of the second millennium.

So, there you have it- the reflections of a version of a returned yank. Maybe I am romanticising Athenry. After all, I have spent relatively little time there. Nevertheless, I wish you well. And I assure you that, however foreign I may be to Athenry – either as a Dubliner or as a resident of Kenya – Athenry has an important place in my heart.

Nairobi, March 1997